‘Waste’ Defined

It is vital to define the term ‘waste’ in order to ensure we achieve the same goals.

Why do we need a definition?

When you know the right meaning of something, usually you are aware of how to deal with it. Every day we are involved in a decision-making process of buying groceries, furniture, purchasing food from restaurants, clothing shops and our choices are influenced by our personal taste, education, as well as what is better for us.

There is a need to change behaviours, choices and processes to reach sustainability goals but in order to do that, a broader knowledge of the situation needs to be addressed to the key actors on this planet.

Every day, we human beings produce waste. Does everybody have the same perception of it? 

What does the term ‘waste’ mean?

Waste is an object or substance which is not needed for its original purpose. Any object is created after a need which must be satisfied. When its target is completed or it is no longer able to satisfy a necessity, then it turns into waste. 

The word “waste” is used also when there is a bad use of something which is available in limited quantity: a “waste of time” or a “waste of money”. Actually, it is after recognising the bad management of our limited resources that we can strive to make efficient use of it. 

The EU Waste Framework Directive, the definition of waste.

In 2008 the European Union established a directive on waste called Waste Framework Directive (WFD). It sets out the basic concepts and definitions related to waste management, such as definitions of waste, recycling, recovery. Defining waste was one of the key concepts of the WFD, in order to determine what falls under the scope of the directive and to find the best approach to waste management. Waste has been defined from the directive as:

‘Any substance or object which the holder discards or intends or is required to discard’

The directive gives a wider definition of waste  through creating a “waste hierarchy” and encouraging management policies to treat waste:

  • Without endangering human health;

  • Without harming the environment;

  • Without risk to water, air, soil, plants or animals;

  • Without causing a nuisance through noise or odours;

  • Without adversely affecting the countryside or places of special interest.

The Waste Hierarchy

The waste hierarchy used by the directive WFD, is a pyramid-shaped tool which legislation and policies must apply in priority order for waste management.

Prevention refers to both quantitative waste prevention (reducing the amount of waste) and to qualitative waste prevention (reducing the content of harmful substances in materials and products). Re-use is a means of waste prevention, but at the moment it is not a waste management operation. For example, if a person takes over a material or piece of clothing, with the intention of re-using it for the same purpose, this creates evidence that the material is not considered to be waste.

Preparing for re-use is defined as ‘checking, cleaning or repairing recovery operations, by which products or components of products that have become waste are prepared so that they can be re-used without any other pre-processing’. Examples for preparing for re-use comprise repairing bicycles, furniture, or electrical or electronic equipment which have been previously discarded by their owners.

Recovery forms a large category of activities which includes all the ‘waste serving a useful purpose by replacing other materials which would otherwise have been used to fulfil a particular function, or waste being prepared to fulfil that function’.

Recycling is ‘any recovery operation by which waste materials are re-processed into products, materials or substances whether for the original or other purposes.’ Recycling includes any physical, chemical or biological treatment leading to a material which is no longer a waste. 

Disposal, finally, is ‘any operation which is not recovery even where the operation has as a secondary consequence the reclamation of substances or energy.’ When waste is not recovered to become a new object or substance is defined as disposal, indeed landfilling, incineration and co-incineration are disposal activities.  

The lesson behind the definition

After having introduced the definition and the scheme of waste and its management, there is a significant lesson regarding how to approach our behaviour regarding waste.

Waste is defined as something that becomes unuseful and it is thrown away. The broader view of waste is that it applies to both recovery and disposal activities. This means that yes the “object” becomes useless for its original purpose, but it can be reshaped and reused for something else. 

The pyramid shape forms a rank which should prioritise some behaviours on how to manage waste. What do we do, after activities of prevention, in order to postpone the disposal of our belongings as much as possible? 

Would a renovated tool for managing waste be useful?

The need to protect the environment is becoming increasingly urgent. We receive many tips telling us how to act, in order to make a difference. At the same time, we do not know why we should do something instead of something else, that means we need a new education system that can explain the theory behind waste, in order to develop and encourage better practices. 

The European Green Deal will introduce a new Circular Economy Action Plan, presenting new initiatives along the entire life cycle of products, in order to modernise and transform our economy whilst protecting the environment. Products will last longer and will be easier to repair and reuse, once a  model which incentives us to create less waste and has been designed. 


Guidance on the interpretation of key provisions of Directive 2008/98/EC on waste: https://ec.europa.eu/environment/waste/framework/pdf/guidance_doc.pdf


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